Infinite peace at Anantyta Resorts

Welcome to the latest in my Hotels I Love series: Anantya Resorts.

Like its name suggests, Anantya has infinite possibilities for leaving behind the cares of city life and embracing the peace and quiet of this fertile land. When I reached, I had no plans for the next two days, and I was quite happy to just coast along. As it turned out, I had a fairly hectic schedule of sightseeing around the region, and had give Kanyakumari a miss – out of sheer laziness, I have to admit. Also, I needed a reason go back!

So, here is a quick look at why you should choose Anantya for your next weekend break – not to forget that they won ‘Best Destination Boutique Hotel’ at the recent Outlook Traveller awards.

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The setting

If location is everything in the hotels business, then Anantya has it all – on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, right on the banks of the picturesque and calm Chittar Lake. The property technically falls under the latter state, but with its architecture and decor, the feel is entirely Kerala.

This site of over 1000 acres, is part of the sprawling Vaikuntam Estates, one of the first rubber plantations in India, set up by the British. So, there is greenery aplenty inside the resort, which in turn attracts incredible birdlife.

The owners have personally put in great thought into the decor – much of it themed after luxury resorts in Thailand, with their little pools of flowing water everywhere. And for that ethnic touch are the old brass and bronze artefacts neatly displayed through the dining area.

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One of the most appealing corners of Anantya is the infinity pool that seems to merge right into the Chittar, an incredible spot to catch the sunset, with a tall, cool sundowner in hand.

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The stay

There are only 21 villas in all, of four types, and all of them set facing the lake. All of them come with a touch of understated luxury, and again, the discerning hand of the family is evident.

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I stayed in one of the Veda Jacuzzi Villas, which as you can guess, comes with its own private Jacuzzi. That apart, it also had my favourite nook in the resort, the gazebo facing the water. When it was just too hot to do anything else, I curled up on the sofa with my book, mostly not reading and just staring at the tranquil waters – once, with the rain beating down around me.

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On one of the afternoons, I head to the Astitva Spa for a relaxing ayurvedic massage. Just as I came out, the skies opened up, and the sight of the rain water merging with the pool and the lake was stunning and soporific at the same time.

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The sightseeing

Although I recommend Anantya as a place to just relax and recharge your batteries, there is enough to do around the resort to keep the compulsive sightseers and activity seekers busy.

I visited the very classy Padmanabhapuram palace which is just an hour away by cab – and I had
every intention of heading on to Kanyakumari from there (another hour) but as admitted earlier, skipped that in favour of a full Mallu thali back at the resort.

palace
(image source: wikimapia)

Another morning, I went for a tour of the Vaikuntam Plantation, taking in the sunset from a hillock inside the estate.

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You can find out more about these excursions here – I also have a story coming up on my visit to the palace. I will link to it here, so please look out for it.

My stay at Jungle Lodges, Bandipur

When we reached the Bandipur Safari Lodge, run by Jungle Lodges, it was only 11 am. We had left Bangalore early in the morning, and even with multiple breakfast and rest stops, we made it to Bandipur sooner than anticipated. The folks at the check in counter were kind enough to give us a room right away, so managed to get some rest before lunchtime. The resort is set in a thickly wooded area, filled with trees and plants, giving us the feel of being close to the forest as soon as we entered.

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Lunch was a pleasant affair at the gol ghar, with a good choice of south Indian and north Indian food, with vegetarians well catered for. The service everywhere in the resort is excellent, with the staff taking care of guest needs promptly.

After lunch, the manager Mr. Nadaf took me on a quick tour of the property, showing the special rooms, which are slightly larger sized standalone cottages that come with an extra verandah.

cottage

verandah

I was staying in a normal cottage, each of which is named after a different animal found in the forest, and has a wall painting of the same behind the beds. I was staying in the sambar room (none of the rooms are air-conditioned but stay cool with the windows open).

room

The resort is also dotted with hammocks here and there, which make the perfect spot for a quick afternoon siesta before the safari. I made myself comfortable on one of those, with a book in hand, although I did not read much, distracted constantly by the various bird calls.

hammock

My experience at Bandipur Safari Lodge had so far been very good – room, food, service – but then it was time for the main reason I was there. Unlike other luxury weekend getaways, people head to Bandipur not to chill out at the resort but for the wildlife safari. And it is in this that the lodge fell seriously short of my expectations.

From the way guests were allocated to different jeeps, to the attitude of the jeep driver, everything was unfortunately below par. There was no naturalist accompanying our jeep, and the driver was just not interested in stopping anywhere to take in the forest, even for photographs. He was not a keen tracker – in my previous several experiences in our forests, I have only seen drivers who keep their eyes and ears trained for any sign of the tiger, and along with that, also point out other animal and bird species. But none of that here.

We just drove on listlessly, without any purpose or interest in seeing anything. By the end of it, even the guests in the jeep had lost interest in the forest and we were glad to be back at the resort – which is another story, because we reached Bandipur Safari Lodge ten minutes before the safari closing time.

In two safaris, forget tigers, we ended up not spotting even many bird species – a major disappointment. I was invited by the folks at thekarnatakatourism.com to this weekend stay at the Bandipur Safari Lodge and I have given my frank feedback here, because it is imperative for any wildlife resort to have good drivers / guides to make the forest come alive to guests.

Note: Karnataka Tourism is a private website that manages bookings for several nature resorts in the state, most of them from Jungle Lodges. You can visit the website or write to them at book@thekarnatakatourism.com for more information.

The Bungalow on the Beach

Dusk

A few months ago, we went on a road trip through Thanjavur and Kumbakonam, then going up north towards Tranquebar, before finally fetching up at Pondicherry. By the time we – we were tired of the hectic temple visits in and around Thanjavur. And all we wanted to do was put our feet up and listen to the song of the waves.

And Tranquebar is really the perfect place to do, given that there is really nothing much to do there except enjoy the rhythm of the sea, explore the Dansborg fort and walk aimlessly around its neatly laid lanes.

Fort

Steets

Boats

What made our visit special was our stay at the 17th century bungalow of the British Collector, now a “non hotel” from Neemrana – The Bungalow On The Beach. This property is just that – a lovely bungalow right by the beach, overlooking the Danish fort on one side and the Shiva temple on the other. With its graceful white facade, tall white columns and arches, cheery bougainvillea trees and bright, airy rooms, this property alone makes a Tranquebar visit worth it.

Panorama

View

We were staying on a room on the first floor and spent most of our time on the cane chairs on the wide verandah outside our room. There are only eight rooms in all, each named after a Danish ship that docked at this port in the centuries past; our room was the very regal Queen Anna Sophia.

Verandah

The room itself was a throwback to the past: four poster beds, high ceilings, a planter’s chair and elegant wooden fixtures. We found the staff particularly friendly and helpful, one of them even taking us on a tour of the village after showing us Neemrana’s other property there, The Gatehouse.

If The Bungalow On The Beach had a European, colonial feel about it, then The Gatehouse was entirely a Tamil mansion renovated, showcasing that way of life. The decor and accents were all typically Tamilian, again redolent of a past era.

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Gatehouse2

True to its location, the seafood at the Bungalow is supposed to be excellent, but the two of us vegetarians stuck to the dosa and vegetable stews, with endless cups of tea to battle the rains. Just remember to ask for extra spice (or masala!) to suit your Indian palates. We could not use the swimming pool but really, who felt like swimming in all that rain?

Pool

In all, Tranquebar plus The Bungalow On The Beach is the perfect combination for a totally chilled, battery recharging holiday. What are you waiting for?

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Also read: my piece on Tranquebar for Mint’s Weekend Vacations column – A slice of Danish history

5 ways to experience Shreyas Yoga Retreat

I recently spent a couple of relaxing, refreshing days at Shreyas Yoga Retreat near Bangalore – less than two hours’ drive from where I live, and from the international airport. Spread over 25 acres of elegantly maintained grounds, Shreyas is in every way the quiet retreat that it promises to be. The focus here is on overall “wellness” rather than the mere practice of bendy postures that go by the name of asanas these days.

Here are my reasons for thoroughly enjoying my stay at Shreyas Yoga Retreat:

1. The discipline of Yoga

I cannot begin to describe the pleasure of a yoga session that is conducted with care by a proficient teacher. And I am saying this as someone who has practised yoga for many years trying to alleviate my chronic backache, and sometimes, with bad teachers, ended up hurting it more.

Classes are usually in the large hall open on all sides to sunlight and fresh air. When I was visited, there were only four other people and the attention was as personal as it could get in a group setting. Two of these four were on a silent retreat for a week, communicating with me through a notepad and pen – apart from the classic yoga practice, there are other forms of rejuvenation possible here. And although I can’t imagine being silent for a week, the general air of peace there makes it seem very natural.

We started with yoga early in the morning – at 6.30 am – followed by breakfast and meditation. I was recommended candle meditation for migraine but was unable to take that – what I did experience was a yoganidra session with an experienced teacher and I can tell you that it left me calmer than I had felt in days.

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Apart from all this, what I really appreciated was the fact that everyone in the staff – from gardeners to teachers – are encouraged to attend a class every day. This makes sure that the ethos of yoga is not restricted to a few at the top but flows through the entire team.

2. Sattvic Food

food2I said sattvic food – and that doesn’t by any means mean unexciting. Every meal was delightful, with a carefully planned menu incorporating Indian and Western food, from soup to dessert. So, there was penne (whole wheat, of course) along with paneer, in a manner of speaking.

Although being a frequent traveller, I am used to eating on my own, it can get very uncomfortable or boring. Here, I was so engrossed in the menu – presented at every table before the meal – that I almost forgot to be bored.

Shreyas also offers 7 day culinary programmes that start with an introduction to the organic garden and the kinds of plants and herbs found there and go on to teach the concepts of Indian vegetarian cooking.

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3. The organic farm

farm2An hour’s exploration of the organic garden in the afternoon was so delightful – especially knowing that a lot of my food was coming straight from the farm. The large area is dotted with coconut trees and vegetable patches and fruit bearing plants, people working cheerfully on the soil. And that little machan (sit-out) in the middle of the farm! It made me want to immediately take a book there and spend the rest of my evening.

Apart from the farm land itself, the entire property is filled with trees and plants of all kinds, with lily ponds to break the monotony of the green (as if!) I still remember the sitafal and mangos hanging from the trees, lush and tempting.

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4. The Spa-mpering

I had a couple of massage treatments at the spa, including an excellent back massage after waking up with a stiff back. From traditional ayurveda treatments like abhyanga and shirodhara, to beauty treatments with a variety of scrubs, the spa is a great place to unwind and spend the hours away from yoga (and let’s be honest, how long can you do yoga in a day?) And for those who are at Shreyas seeking treatment for any specific ailment or problem, the carefully planned treatments would go hand in hand with the yoga.

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5. Pitching camp

tent2There are two kinds of accommodation options there: rooms by the pool and tents in the garden. I spent a day in each type, and really enjoyed the extremely private and quiet tent experience in the middle of the garden, complete with air-conditioning and fluffy towels.

With a verandah in the front – with planters’ chairs – to while away those rainy evenings, and an open-air enclosed bathroom at the back, it offered all the comforts of a luxury room.

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FInally – although I have filed this also under ‘Hotel Reviews’, don’t take that literally. Go there with an open mind about your wellness – and that means no alcohol, cigarettes or meat – and remember, if yoga is really not your thing (and why not?), then Shreyas is ideal as a weekend or even a week’s break away from the noise and stress of city life. Unwinding took on an entirely new meaning there for me.

(All photos courtesy Shreyas Yoga Retreat).

My Spafari experience in South Africa

This is how it works at the Karkloof Safari Spa. They stop you at the main gate to verify your credentials and then phone the reception to expect you. You drive on further on the mud track and reach the reception area. After those last fifteen bumpy minutes on a gravel path, those cold towels feel just perfect.

No complicated check in process: just one signature here please. Someone then smiles broadly and tells you all about the facilities at the safari spa, named after the Karkloof valley it is located in. You smile back at them, only half listening, and get on to the jeeps waiting to transfer you to your villas.

And then you almost fall off your seats. Just outside the reception area, a couple of white rhinoceros are lounging in the shade of a tree (no, not acacia, even if we are in Africa).

Rhino
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

When I enter the Karkloof Safari Spa, I know I am not going to spot any of the big cats. You see, I have gone through their website with increasing wonder and anticipation for days before I finally get there. But I certainly don’t expect a welcoming committee of the other wildlife that this safari lodge meets spa heaven promises.

For a minute, I cynically wonder if the call from the main gate is some sort of code for “visitors ahead, let the rhinos out” but another look at these behemoths kills that thought. So I sit back and take a few hundred photographs. Imagine the abundance of wildlife here when I say that by the time I leave I am blasé about these big guys. Oh ok, one more rhino.

The drive to the villas, through the green and golden bush, is a taste of what is to come. And the dozens of pools, that seemed to be the preferred rendezvous for the local birdlife. By the time we reach the accommodation area, we have spotted zebras, warthogs and the native antelope, nyala (what a fascinating sound; I cannot stop saying the word aloud. Go on, try it yourself.)

nyala

It is a lovely walk from the main lodge to the villas, linked to each other by stone walkways and wooden bridges, with streams gurgling underneath. Esther shows me to my villa, where I make a quick mental note of the espresso machine and the small selection of South African wines.

The villa is a spacious affair with a bedroom, a sitting area and a bathroom that opens out to a cozy rear garden. Up front is a verandah that tempts me to put my feet up and wait for a nyala – there, I use the word again for its sheer melody (it could just as easily be a wildebeest) – to stop by my doorstep. With the bush all around and the expanse of the valley far ahead, it is no wonder they call it a viewing deck.

Villa

View
(images courtesy: karkloof)

The game reserve itself is spread over 8600 acres of land where the animals roam free. And to allow that, it is deliberately devoid of big game, the predators. But I have no time for Karkloof’s fauna to find the time to pay a house call. The spa awaits. In a land strewn with hundreds of national parks and game reserves, a safari lodge that is also a destination spa is a rare delight.

So, the spa. This paean to pampering is set in a space that is as large as the lodge itself. Karkloof takes great pride in the fact that the spa has been built to blend seamlessly into the environment. The nifty buggy gets me straight to the spa and within minutes, I am officially open for a whole day of spadom. One of the best things about this spa is, not having to go through the agony of making hard decisions based on time and money. I have eleven hours of spa treatments to indulge in, breaking off only for a bite of organic food at the spa café or a leisurely game drive to wave at a few giraffe.

All this is part of Karkloof’s concept of “timeless stay”: flexible check in and check out schedules, meal times of your making, game drives at your convenience and the luxury of staying at the spa all day. Uplifting facials? Detoxifying scrubs? Aroma Thai massages? Bring them on.

Spa
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

The star attraction of the spa is the hydrotherapy treatments – a floatation pool, the open area Jacuzzi and the Kniepp pools, among other things. The last is a system devised to boost your blood circulation by making you alternate between hot and cold pools. If you survive the shock to the system, that is. Obviously, I skip it.

In keeping with the eco-friendly theme, the hydrotherapy area boasts of “living roofs” of thatch and grass, where animals wander in to graze. The treatment rooms, also reached through wooden walkways, are spread around the core zone and overlook the wild bush. I almost expect curious zebras to peep in through the large picture windows and suffer mild trauma upon seeing humans with gooey face packs on.

My therapist is a petite Thai lady who silently works magic with her fingers. Towards the end, she tries to give me a few health tips to keep my skin glowing. I wonder sleepily if I can’t take her back home with me instead.

After being spa’d so much, I can barely keep my eyes open at the dinner table. Much of the food choices here are of the raw, healthy variety; I had a choice of falling asleep on the bowl of roasted vine tomato soup (cooked) or the pear, melon and rocket soup (raw).

That bit about game drives being at my own convenience? I had fully intended to make use of it to not wake up at an ungodly hour to go wildlife viewing. But fate has other plans. Our safari guides Kenny and Lovemore hint gently that early mornings are ideal for drives inside the reserve but of course, I could sleep in if I choose to.

ostrich

And so we go on a safari at the crack of dawn. The Karkloof birds – over 300 species within the property – are just coming to life. A couple of hippos are raising their heads hesitantly from inside a large pond. A group of ostriches is going on a disciplined march, even as wild buffalos engage in mock fights nearby. And just about everywhere, zebras and giraffe stay close to each other, grazing, content. The long and short of it, I think, looking at them.

Giraffe
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

zebra

Despite my rhino sighting of the previous day, I am excited at the thought of seeing more of them. Thanks to a white rhino-breeding programme, there are nearly twenty of them in the reserve and a solitary, endangered black rhino. The rhino we spot is right by the side of the road. He ignores us with a steadfast dedication to his breakfast. Seeing him framed against the golden glow of that morning sunlight, there is a moment of affectionate silence in the jeep. Then he looks up and the spell is broken.

Kenny and Lovemore, Zimbabweans both, are remarkably informed and passionate about the reserve and the birds and animals within. They drive us to a “special place” for breakfast. And like everything else I have experienced at Karkloof so far, breakfast too is special, in the bush, on top of a cliff, overlooking the valley.

breakfast

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All too soon, it is time to leave. I wonder if I have the time to sneak in one more spa treatment; this kind of thing is rather addictive. But the call of the real world outside these gates is getting sharper.

The Karkloof Safari Spa calls itself Africa’s best kept secret. I come away believing it.

THE INFORMATION

How to get there

Fly Jet Airways (Rs. 51,000) or South African Airways (Rs. 53,000) from Mumbai to Durban via Johannesburg. From Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, the Karkloof Safari Spa is less than a two-hour drive. The nearest big town is Pietermaritzburg, 24 km away.

Visa

Apply for a short-term visitor visa (no fee for Indian nationals) at the VFS in Mumbai or Delhi and allow for a minimum processing time of five working days. A service charge of Rs. 1350 is to be paid in cash at the time of submission of the visa application.

Stay

There are 16 private villas at the Karkloof Safari Spa, with tariff 9900 ZAR per person, per night. The rate is inclusive of all meals, beverages, game drives, outdoor activities and spa treatments. Check in is allowed from 8 am and check out the next evening at 8 pm, which means that for one night, you get two days at the property.

Since the spa has 17 treatment rooms, there is no need to book in advance. And the stay policy also means that you can potentially get up to 22 hours of spa treatments.

Activities

Apart from the wildlife and the spa, the property is home to the Karkloof river and the 340-feet high Karkloof waterfall, reached by a mild hike. And for those so inclined, activities like fishing, birding, mountain biking and yoga sessions are offered.

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